NYT’s Heffernan contrasts WebMD, MayoClinic.com

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

New York Times Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan has posted a take on the quality of online health information, framed as a side-by-side review of WebMD and MayoClinic.com. Her characterization of for-profit WebMD as a “hypochondria time suck” has garnered the most attention so far, but it seems almost tame compared to her attacks on the site’s ties to big pharma and her exhortation that users actively block that particular address from their web browsers.

As an example, after praising the Mayo Clinic’s restrained approach to patients looking to self-diagnose a headache (it waits until page eight to suggest OTC painkillers), Heffernan flips to WebMD and describes the site’s approach:

… if you plug “headache” and “WebMD” into Google, the Web opens to the glamorous, photo-dominated “Migraines and Headaches Health Center,” a sound-and-light show that seems itself like a headache trigger. There’s the requisite picture of a tastefully made-up young woman holding her head in exquisite agony. The headache “news,” flush right on the page, comes with more artful photos of lovely people in pain and includes scare headlines like “Headaches: When Is It an Emergency?” The first page contains no hard facts — you have to click and thereby drive up the site’s lucrative click-throughs — but instead quickly transforms visitors from Web users with headaches to hard-core migraineurs and drug consumers.

For the record, WebMD pulls in almost three times as many monthly page views as its nonprofit rival.

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4 thoughts on “NYT’s Heffernan contrasts WebMD, MayoClinic.com

  1. Pingback: Web Roundup: Comparing Online Health Info, Questioning a Breast Cancer Treatment, Guilt in Any Gender « Off the Charts

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  3. joan aragone

    I did not read the NYT story.
    However, years ago a friend who worked in research at NIH gave me a tip about reliable web sources for medical information. When searching online, add NIH (National Institutes of Health) to the condition, disease, medicine, etc. being researched. e.g. diabetes and NIH or diabetes symptoms and NIH, or lupus NIH, etc. etc.

    This has worked for me. I start there for basic info and check others, such as Mayo Clinic, if needed. It’s efficient and lets me avoid for-profit sites, advertising and personal rants.

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